Tag Archives: 2013

Top 10 Best and Worst New Books (That I Read In) 2013

23 Dec

Welcome to my first end-of-year roundup. I have read a lot of good contemporary literature this year, more than usual, because I’ve been doing some official reviewing, though I don’t claim to have an exhaustive sample. Still, if you are a reader of my blog, who wants to know what I think you should read–or stay away from–from 2013, enjoy! The following is best to worst, from 1 to 5 being picks, starting with the best, and from 6-10 being pans, ending with the worst.

1. The Blind Masseuse by Alden Jones
This is a small book from a university press that hasn’t been reviewed nearly enough, in my opinion, and that I’ve been trying to spread the word about, because it’s the best travel book I’ve read–and I used to write about travel as a profession–not to mention certainly the best travel book of 2013. It’s the chronicle of how Jones, as a recent college graduate with itchy feet syndrome, found it difficult to settle down onto a career track as many of her friends did, and instead used every means she could to go to the most exotic places possible. And how that played out in Costa Rica, Cambodia, Cuba, etc. as she got older. It’s about the joys of travel, the hows and whys we do it, but also about what it means to be an observer of a foreign culture, of who we’re exoticizing, and what we’re assuming, and what that does to our own identities. It’s smart and thoughtful, but also Jones is cackle-for-days hilarious and the book is a page-turner from second one, when she’s out walking in the dark in her village and bumps into a cow. Please, everyone, read this book!

2. Hild, by Nicola Griffith
Here’s another book that I think is being semi-robbed by the literary establishment, for the depressing, predictable reason that it’s being treated as genre. Bookforum, in particular, which lately has seemed like it’s going out of its way to kiss the ass of every writer-about-town, no matter how terrible their book is, did a really torturous review struggling with the fact that this book is historical and might possibly be construed as fantasy, because the heroine is considered by some characters in the book to be able to see the future. It was only through comparison with Wolf Hall, another historical novel that is safely agreed to be literary, that the reviewer garnered the courage to put pen to paper. Phew! No matter that Hild is a brilliantly researched, intensely granular, almost out-of-body experiences of being transported to another world. Every detail of life in the seventh century is foreign, but rings true.  The plot kept things moving, and the prose reminded me of Marilynne Robinson in its beauty and strangeness.

3. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid
This faux self-help book might be the best use of second-person narration since Bright Lights, Big City, and, as a meditation on living a good life, has stayed with me surprisingly vividly since reading it. It is, as it says, about a young man born into rural poverty in an unnamed Asian city, known only as “you,” and the success arc of his life. One of the first extremely clever structural innovations is how quickly the author makes us, the readers, whose life experiences are largely very different from the hero’s, actually live in his skin, and feel like “you” is us.

4. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
At this point it’s difficult to remember that the year, for me, started in a blaze of Saunders glory, when I, like so many other readers first discovered his weird, angry, deliberately ugly work through the huge crossover hit, Tenth of December, and felt that it was a frighteningly accurate description of late corporate America. I then went and read three other Saunders books in quick succession, and quickly tired of the flatness of affect that comes with his dehumanized humans. Nonetheless, it’s only fair to include this book in the best-of side, since Saunders has single-handedly created a vernacular-dystopian genre that will now be with us for a long time.

5. We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulaweyo
This was a beautiful immigrant story with a fresh voice and lovely, gritty reality, polished to a gleaming M.F.A.-program shine. I liked it mostly because it was young and female and African (which might be exoticism, read Alden Jones’s book from item one!), and felt utterly true.

6. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
I wrote a pretty good review of this book for The Tottenville Review, for many reasons. One was its sexy premise about a young woman motorcyclist in the 70s who goes to New York to make it in the art world, and ends up using velocity for her performance art. Another was Kushner’s incredible sentences. The Flamethrowers was a big, ambitious, fun to read, from an hugely skilled writer. It has ended up underneath my personal waterline because it’s a book about misogyny, that seems to be on some level itself misogynist. In the end, there was too much authorial joy taken in punishing the female characters just for being female.  I’m conflicted, because I’ve experienced enough struggle as a woman in the arts to appreciate Kushner’s portrait, but at the same time as I resent her for not allowing her character to rise above the female condition.

7. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya Von Bremzen
My detailed review of this book is still pending on my blog (whoops, end-of-year crush). It’s an entertaining and well-written memoir of Von Bremzen’s family history in the Soviet Union, told through cooking and recreating one recipe per decade of Soviet rule. I found it to be a bait-and-switch, because I picked it up as someone who knows Von Bremzen as a food writer, and wanted to both read her story and also learn from the recipes. But the recipes were either the most emblematic (cliche) dishes, or things that weren’t really meant to be cooked, like “cornbread for Krushchev,” which was meant to be a joke. So, the book didn’t deliver on the suggestion that mastering the art of Soviet cooking might be enjoyable. And, just as a history, it covered pretty familiar ground, though in a fluid, colorful way. I also questioned Von Bremzen writing about her high-level Soviet nomenklatura grandparents, and about her life of comparative privilege in the Soviet Union, while still claiming that she and her mother were always, in their hearts, dissidents. I am fairly certain that real dissidents weren’t eating caviar in elite preschools, as Von Bremzen says she was, and that such claims devalue many honorable people’s true suffering under the Soviet regime. So, despite Von Bremzen’s talent and fascinating story, I found the book hard to like, in the end.

8. I forget what 8 was for
I don’t actually have five new-release books that I read this year that deserve a spot on the worst-of list. Yet I am the type of hater who really wants to punish the two following despicable titles with 9 and 10 spots. Read on!

9. A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
I don’t know why a writer as great as Dave Eggers published two books this year, if they were both going to be so bad. This one, I hear, is the less-bad than The Circle, but both seem to share the same flaws of being unrealistic thrillers with a naive reliance on liberal cultural bogeymen. This one is about a down-on-his-luck businessman who goes to Saudi Arabia to try to sell a technology to the Saudi king. Eggers has such a storytelling knack that it’s a compelling read on the surface, until the reader starts to find the characters hackneyed–faceless Chinese competition! inscrutable Arab partners! Americans who don’t make anything anymore!–and the moral quandaries manipulative and false. From such a talented writer, this was truly a shame.

10. Storm Front, by “John Sandford”
The death of a great line of police procedurals is worth noting, and mourning. No one ever said that John Sandford’s Prey series, or its spinoff starring the Virgil Flowers character, was great literature, but they were extremely well-written, well-plotted, very funny books with a pitch-perfect sense of place. Sandford has now gone the ghost-writing route and the fans, myself included, are screaming in horror as beloved characters stagger around, half-animated, like farcical zombie versions of themselves. If anything is an argument for good writing transcending genre, this is it. Sandford’s accomplishment, turns out, can’t be automated.

38. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid

23 Dec

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This book grabbed me by the guts and didn’t let go; I’m still thinking about the characters a week later, which is a strange feeling when a book is written in the second-person. The hero was “you”–definitely a person who had nothing in common with “me”–and the love interest only “the pretty girl,” yet their stories were so vivid and compelling, and the “you,” once I got used to it, was so deeply embodying, that I’m still wondering what the hero and the pretty girl could have done differently, if anything. Lying in bed at night I’ve found my mind drifting to them, their lives, wondering if they were good lives or bad lives, though of course the answer is just tragically mixed, as ours all are.

The book is about what the title says it’s about, and traces a protagonist from birth in rural poverty (chapter headings like “Move to the City”) up the success arc in an unnamed city that seems to be religiously Muslim, though it’s barely specified beyond the women sometimes going covered. The “How to” of the title is relevant, since the structure is maintained as a faux self-help book. And the observations about life and success are, while probably not actually helpful (since most readers are not trying to get filthy rich in rising Asia), funny and well-played.

I was a little bit off-put by both the voice and the prose, in the beginning. Unfortunately I quickly loaned my copy out, so don’t have the examples in front of me. It was choppy and hard to follow in places, and started off with a lot of squatting to shit and meaty thwhacking while people had sex. But fortunately the book was grabby enought that I stuck with it, and before too long I was utterly won over by the feeling of the stakes raising with each decade of age. I’m not sure if that’s true of all lives, or just the ones depicted, but it ended up being a powerful read. I will definitely read more from this author.

37. September Girls, by Bennett Madison

3 Dec

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The launch of Lizzie Skurnick books, an imprint devoted to re-releasing weird, wonderful, lost YA novels (All of a Kind Family? Out of print!?!?), made me remember with a lurch of delight that there was a time when all YA was weird, or at least it seemed like it to me, lounging on the carpet by the carousels at the Wellesley Public Library, as an early teen in the mid 80s.

Those carousels–the wire kind that housed five or six different books in a section, so you had to dig through–were always stuffed with the  bizarre, the sexual, the thought-provoking, the horrifying…. And oh how I loved them. There was the House of Stairs, by William Sleator, about some kids imprisoned inside a house like an Escher-painting of endless stairs, who were forced to be cruel to each other in order to receive automated cans of meat. There was Michael McDowell’s Blackwater series, the incomprehensible but fascinating story of a flooded town. (I’ve tried to re-read this as an adult, and it still makes no sense). And one of my favorites, the sci-fi Fire Dancer series, by Ann Maxwell, who is now better known by her romance pen name, Elizabeth Lowell. Fire Dancer was about a young refugee girl whose home planet had been destroyed, who had nascent flame-thrower powers, and a massive “Bre’n,” bearlike protector, with whom she was eventually supposed to mate. But since the elders of her world were gone, there was no one to tell her that, and the Bre’n was forbidden from doing so by cultural taboo. So she kept getting horny/angry/confused and burning off all her clothes, which would make her fire-veins itch, and the Brin had to rub salve all over her without confessing his own feelings, which would lead to more horniness and confusion…..  Maybe I am revealing too much of my early sexual imprinting, but that shit was hot.

I can’t imagine any of those books being published now, and it is in this spirit that I’m going to review Bennett Madison’s wonderful, strange YA novel September Girls, which isn’t a tidy Hollywood-formula book, and is much funnier, for it.

(I just went and read the controversy about this book on Amazon, and maybe understand better why textured and unusual books are no longer published, since a good chunk of the commenters, presumably teenage girls, are offended and appalled that the narrator, a boy, likes to masturbate and mentions his dick. This gets at an essential difference between then and now, in YA literature; I read as an early teen to gain access to the unfamiliar, rather than be presented with a maximally likeable world, which I think young readers are now trained to expect.)

But on to September Girls. The book is about a boy named Sam whose broken family goes to the beach somewhere in the Outer Banks for a summer, where, as it turns out, the hot, mean beach-girl waitresses [POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT] are actually mermaids. There is a plot focusing on Sam figuring this out and learning the mermaid mysteries, that was less compelling, for me, than the sensation of wandering into a YA Escher house where the mood and the tone and the details bring you somewhere new, and thought-provoking.

What I liked most was the ambiguity of experiences in this book. Here’s how Sam describes the girls:

“…they were everywhere and every one of them could have been sisters–all with hair somewhere on a spectrum that ranged from blond to blondest, all with full, glossy lips and eyes that floated an inch in front of their faces, suspended in deep pools of liquid liner. They traveled in pairs and threesomes, and they seemed to move as parts of a strange beach machine. Tossing their hair in slo-mo unison, drifting easily back and forth into one another’s space as if exchanging bodies. They were just kind of weird. They reminded me of the clusters of jellyfish I’d spotted floating in the swells. But they were also really hot. Fuck. I mean really hot. I did my best to pretend they weren’t there.”

They’re hot. They’re also like jellyfish. They’re beautiful and interchangeable and terrible and I, reading this, felt like I was learning something interesting and behind-the-scenes about what it feels like to be a teenage boy, afraid of girls and also fascinated by them. I loved that we were reading about a boy who is ambivalent about having sex, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand. I loved the slangy realness of the voice.

I also loved that this book is the messy dark twin to the perfect books about perfect summers. On this beach the heat is sometimes “constant and slimy,” and the fiberglass mermaid at the mini-golf reclines “in a way that was meant, I think, to be seductive but actually made it look like she had a problem with her spine.”  The girls read a women’s magazine called Her Place, and name themselves after beauty products and shampoos.

Ultimately, September Girls is about transformation, that last, ugly molting into adulthood (by which I mean the 20s), when you don’t know who you are yet, or what you like, and are too old to still be living with your parents, but too young to be alone, and are “trying to reach out to another, truer version of myself, across some kind of infinite and unbridgeable divide,” as Sam says. You were a teenager, or a mermaid, an unfixed entity, and you can’t stay that way, you must grow up, which involves a lot of bad fashion choices and collateral damage love affairs, and is painful, in its first steps, like swords in the feet.

As an adult, I liked it. I think if I’d read it as a teen, it would have been exactly the type of book to lodge in the brain and stick.

35. Hild, by Nicola Griffith

19 Nov

Drink a cup of buttermilk, sleep on a mattress of horsehair and sweet gale, watch the dairy maids pour off pans of cream, learn the words gesith, aethling, gemaecca, wealh. Meet Hild, a real Dark Ages saint re-imagined by British writer Nicola Griffith as a player in the medieval island’s game of thrones, a child grown to young woman rendered in 536 densely beautiful pages of pristine period detail.  A more perfect cup of witchery does not exist, for those of us who like historical romance but also have literary standards.

The author has said in interviews that it was her intent to write a strong female character in the seventh century who had freedom and agency—she believes such women existed, we just think they didn’t. She took the real story of a girl born to hardship, who rose to become an important figure in the church, and set out to understand how she could have gotten there, largely by building a world that made sense around her, and then filling the person into it.

The book is a spectacular accomplishment, and is totally immersive in the details of pre-modern life. Hild’s triumphs as a seer in a hostile king’s court are constructed so smoothly from fear, cunning and circumstance, that they’re as believable to us as they are to her. Griffith also finds convincing ways for Hild to partake in the culture of swords and war, while still being circumscribed as a woman would have been. The rise of the Christian church and driving out of the old gods (Woden!) is as frightening as it’s meant to be. And the character’s sexual awakening, incestuous love for a half-brother, and various accommodations with her slave handmaiden are a gift, coming from a writer with Griffith’s skill with metaphor. Skin is like the flesh of hazelnuts, hair like linden honey. These people, you want to see have sex.

There are so many beautiful descriptions of everything in this book, it’s hard to choose one to sum it up, but this is from page 5:

“She knew them by their thick woven cloaks, their hanging hair and beards, and their Anglisc voices: words drumming like apples split over wooden boards, round, rich, stirring. Like her father’s words, and her mother’s, and her sister’s. Utterly unlike Onnen’s otter-swift British or the dark liquid gleam of Irish. Hild spoke each to each. Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam.”

Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam. An amazing book.

34. Storm Front, John Sandford

12 Nov

Whoever is at the helm of the ghostwriting ship that bears John Sandford’s name is officially asleep at the wheel, or has run into an iceberg, or in this case run aground on a hokey, fake Israeli artifact.

I have written many times before about my deep devotion to Sandford’s Prey series of police procedurals, which at their best are tight and well-written, with great characterization, hilarious dialog, tough Minnesota guys with guns, and pretty much everything a girl, even a serious reader, could want in a thriller. And though I have noticed signs in the past that Sandford himself wasn’t writing his new series starring young detective Virgil Flowers, I have not been uptight about it, assuming that if this great writer (and very rich man, at this point) wanted to not pump out two books a year, and could find a way to automate the task, I wouldn’t blame him.

However, no. Storm Front, the latest Flowers book, was a terrible, unreadable, dull monstrosity that read like a parody of a John Sandford novel. Reading it was like seeing a beloved character (and writer) die and return as a zombie. The plot, involving a stolen Israeli artifact and its various pursuers, was ridiculous, incomprehensible and boring. There were two terrorist organizations after the artifact, neither one developed, two competing Israeli agents with zero personality, and two separate but indistinguishable TV-star antiquities experts, plus three down-home factions and even some FBI agents thrown in. Guys, that’s way too many characters. You know this. When you start thinking you need two of the same “type,” your book is off the rails.

I cannot believe that a writer as economical and skilled as Sandford even read this thing.

Another aspect that usually sets a Sandford book apart is the dialog and funny banter between the characters. This one tried, but missed, so Virgil was consistently weirdly (and not funnily) joking around during tense moments. Like, his Hezbollah informant decided to go out to a bar and pick up women while in the middle of betraying a dangerous Hezbollah operative and fearing for his life, and he and Virgil were all chatty about where he should go, the girls there, etc. Here’s a typically absurd bit of misplaced sexual banter, between two supporting characters:

“He said he had to go to Rochester—I don’t know what for.” “You believe him?”
“I asked him if he’d like to come over and go skinny-dipping, and he said he had to work. I know he likes to skinny dip so…I believe him. Hasn’t called me today.”
“Hmm. If I were younger, and not a minister, and not married, and not dying…anyway…”

Another thing that was dreadful was how Virgil was suddenly selectively enforcing the law, based on if he thought the criminal was really a bad person or not. Davenport’s mystique was that he knew the criminals well enough to use them, and broke some laws himself, but always in pursuit of justice. (This is a bad-boy-cop cliche, I realize, but it’s effective.) But, if I read the incomprehensible denouement of this book correctly, Virgil is letting guys he likes walk away with millions of dollars in stolen money, for no good reason. And also criminals with dying wives walk away with millions of dollars (I’m still not clear on where the money to ultimately support the stone-thief’s sick wife came from…), because the poor things needed it. It’s a farce.

There was so much more wrong with this book, I could go on forever. The beautifully drawn location in Minnesota, always a delight of a Sandford book, was totally absent. The prose was rotten, and clunked along like hell trying to explain the ridiculous plot twists. Who has the stone? Where is the stone? How is Ma getting the stone for the auction, and if Virgil knows she has it, why does he allow the auction? Here’s a paragraph of representative incoherence:

“Awad and al-Lubnani didn’t have to know about the Washington team. If Awad and al-Lubnani were actually planning to rip off the Hezbollah’s money, and he thought that likely, then he should be able to figure out a way to blackmail them into telling him the exchange point, using the Hachet as a sword hanging over their heads. ‘I’ll go on TV,’ he’d tell them, ‘and say you guys stole the money. Who’s Hezbollah going to believe–the guys who disappeared with three million in cash, or a cop? But give me the stone, and I’ll tell everybody that Jones got the money, and I’ll tell Washington about the Hachet, and no matter what happens then, he’ll no longer be a factor.’ “

I am hoping and praying that this disaster will be a wake-up call for the franchise, and that the Sandford team will get it together to get a ghostwriter who can write.

33. The Summer I Turned Pretty, Jenny Han

6 Oct

I read this for work, and it was a great, lightweight beach read, that established a strong mood and had a clever, nostalgic structure with lots of flashbacks to summers past. Very well done, and I think it had the big-bestseller status to prove it.